Mexican drug lord's escape sinks Peña Nieto's credibility

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman used an elaborate tunnel to slip out of a maximum-security prison on Saturday night. President Peña Nieto said last year that any escape by Guzman would be "unforgivable." 

Kamil Zihnioglu/AP
Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers his speech at the French-Mexican Academic and Scientific partnership headquarters in Paris, France, Monday, July 13, 2015. Authorities in Mexico continue their all-out manhunt for drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who officials say escaped Saturday from a maximum security prison. Officials say an opening in the shower area of his cell opened up to a one-mile tunnel.

The escape of Mexico’s most prominent drug trafficker from a maximum-security prison on Saturday is a major blow to President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The president was already struggling with the lowest presidential approval ratings in nearly two decades. His administration has faced scandals ranging from the disappearance of 43 students in southern Guerrero State to allegations of a sweetheart real-estate deal between the president’s wife and a government contractor.

The capture in February 2014 of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was a rare bright spot for the president that highlighted cooperation between Mexican security forces and the US. And putting Mr. Guzman, who ran one of Mexico’s most sophisticated drugs trafficking organizations, behind bars was considered a sign of progress. Now his escape has damaged what credibility remained for the administration with three years left in office.

“The capture of Guzman was a huge win for Enrique Peña Nieto,” says Jorge Chabat, a drug war and security expert at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. “But his escape is far worse than had he never been captured in the first place.”

After last year’s capture of Guzman, who in 2001 slipped out of a Mexican prison in a laundry basket, Mr. Peña Nieto ruled out a repeat, telling a reporter that it would be “unforgiveable” and that it was “an obligation of the state” to prevent another such breakout.

The government declined to have Guzman extradited to stand trial in the US. At the time, former Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said that, “the risk does not exist” of Guzman escaping again. 

Authorities said Monday that a manhunt was underway around the jail, located outside Mexico City and supposedly the country’s most secure facility. At least 30 prison officials are being questioned over the breakout. Guzman escaped via a mile-long tunnel accessed from his cell’s shower that emerged in a house outside the prison walls. 

“I’m not sure how they can recover from this, but the next few days will be key,” says Mr. Chabat. Pledging improvements to Mexico’s prisons or security system may fall on tin ears since any proposed changes will have likely been suggested – or promised – in the past. 

Mexico’s struggles with corruption and the rule of law are longstanding and predate the rise of multibillion-dollar drug-trading syndicates like Guzman’s. While it has made small strides in some states in terms of strengthening the judiciary and reforming police, nationwide there is a lot of work to be done.

“Mexican public opinion already perceives that there’s collusion between the armed forces and organized crime,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, senior associate for the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This only fuels that perception, whether it’s merited or not."

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